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Op-ed: The FDA needs to start protecting us from obesity-promoting food chemicals

New report finds the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is not testing food, additives or packaging for chemicals that cause obesity or disrupt our metabolism.

3 min read

The Western diet is a triple threat for causing obesity: the diet itself, the additives used in the food processing and the chemicals used in the food packaging are all culprits, according to a new report from the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

The center is a science-based consumer advocacy organization that studies nutrition and health, so the focus on nutrition’s role in obesity is not surprising. What is surprising is a report on the role of environmental chemicals, obesogens, in causing obesity.

Obesogen science proposes that humans are exposed to chemicals (obesogens) that stimulate the formation of fat cells and fat disposition, disrupt metabolism and energy, and regulate appetite and weight gain, which results in obesity. While obesogens can act across the lifespan, they have their greatest effects in utero and during early life when the metabolic system is developing.

The new report examined how much evidence supports the obesogen hypothesis, and how researchers, health advocates and government should respond.

And unfortunately it found the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is failing us.

What food chemicals are obesogens?


The Western diet is obesogenic due to its high fat, high sugar, low fiber, low fruits and vegetables and high content of highly processed foods, but preservatives, emulsifiers, flavor enhancers or antioxidants can also contain obesity-inducing chemicals.

Credit: Alexander Grey/Unsplash

The Center for Science in the Public Interest examined all the data supporting the obesogen hypothesis. While the Western diet is obesogenic due to its high fat, high sugar, low fiber, low fruits and vegetables and high content of highly processed foods, the study examined the possible obesogenic effects of chemicals intentionally added to food as preservatives, emulsifiers, flavor enhancers or antioxidants.

Data analysis indicated that the preservatives benzoates, propionic acid and parabens, the emulsifier dioctyl sodium sulfosuccinate (DOSS), the psychoactive drug caffeine, the flavor enhancer monosodium glutamate (MSG, and the antioxidant 3-tert butyl hydroxyanisole (3-BHA) are suspected obesogens.

Further, they noted ethyl butyrate and methyl salicylate (flavorings) and the color additives red 40, yellow 5 and yellow 6 are potential obesogens, pending confirmation in animal studies. Carboxymethylcellulose, an emulsifier, is also an obesogen via alterations in the gut microbiota, and fructose and low-calorie sweeteners acesulfame potassium, aspartame, saccharin, sucralose and stevia leaf extracts are also obesogenic. In addition, bisphenol A (BPA), perfluorooctanoic acid, and di-ethylhexyl phthalate, known obesogens, are used in food packaging and can be released into the food.

There are also pesticide residues used in producing fruits and vegetables, some of which are also obesogens.

FDA failures 

Despite this data, the report noted that the FDA “lacks a framework for identifying and evaluating possible metabolic disruptors and obesogens.”

The public relies on the FDA to guide the safety of food and food additives. The FDA has dropped the ball. Consumer health is suffering. The report notes that FDA could greatly benefit from expert input as it seeks to improve its assessments of chemicals added to food. It recommended that the FDA, in collaboration with the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences or the Endocrine Society, should fund the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to develop recommendations for incorporating information on metabolic disruption into its assessments of food chemicals and guidance for companies that seek to introduce substances into the food supply. Furthermore, for substances already on the market, FDA should prioritize substances for reevaluation, taking information on metabolic disruption into account.

The FDA’s Redbook — the agency’s guide for toxicological testing — was last updated in 2007 and does “not reflect the current scientific understanding of metabolic disruption and more generally endocrine disruption,” according to the new report. Changes suggested to toxicological testing include: examining a wider range of doses, longer testing to determine adult-onset obesity, more disease-related and modern molecular endpoints, determination of cumulative exposures and consideration of sensitive populations.

I applaud the Center for Science in the Public Interest and support the call for the FDA to examine chemicals in food that can lead to obesity. I hope someone at FDA is listening — the health of Americans depends on it.

These views do not necessarily represent those of Environmental Health News, The Daily Climate, or publisher Environmental Health Sciences.

About the author(s):

Jerrold J. Heindel

Jerrold J. Heindel is the Director of Healthy Environment and Endocrine Disruptor Strategies, a program of Environmental Health Sciences.

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